For some it is a fascination, for others a fright. One group seeks traces in the shadows of the Pinelands.
The mangled remains of bird carcasses were spread across the public boat dock. Feathers littered the ground 10 feet away, but the entrails lay neatly, as if awaiting a high school lab dissection.
The heads were missing.
Paul Velez, 26, bent over the entrails: "Guys, this isn't rotten. This is fresh."
"We're getting out of here," Laura Leuter, 23, said into her voice recorder in a scene right out of The Blair Witch Project. "Whatever did this could come back and do this to us."
It might not have been the Jersey Devil, but it was enough to convince the group's skeptics that the Pine Barrens could be home to a strange, undocumented species. It was also enough to scare the bejesus out of the believers.
The Jersey Devil has fascinated and terrified residents since the 18th century. The demon's popularity waxes and wanes, but a new tide of interest has thrust it back into the eerie Pinelands moonlight.
This week is the 93rd anniversary of the Jersey Devil's most famous spree - Phenomenal Week, when nearly 50 sightings occurred. They began late
Saturday, Jan. 16, 1909, when an unidentified Woodbury man reported staring at "the eyes of a beast" as he left his hotel. James Sackville, a Bristol police officer, then saw the demon at his window.
Through the end of the month, Camden's Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center is presenting a Jersey Devil exhibit, complete with sketches of the demon and devil paraphernalia such as T-shirts, road signs and patches.
The 13th Child, an X-Files-esque motion picture starring Robert Guillaume and Cliff Robertson, is scheduled for a fall release.
And with several books and a comic-book series celebrating the creature, its perpetuity seems assured.
Leuter, 23, a Middlesex County emergency medical technician, is founder and president of the Devil Hunters - a group of New Jerseyans in their 20s who foray deep into the Galloway Township Pinelands in Atlantic County to retrace the demon's long-gone hoofprints.
Somewhere between hobby and obsession rests Leuter's fascination with the devil. It's a penchant she has had since her childhood in California.
Leuter and her team search various sites, among them the foundation of the Shourds house, home to a once-prominent South Jersey family and the supposed birthplace of the state's unofficial demon.
In Pinelands lore, he was born in 1735, the 13th child of an impoverished Mrs. Leeds. During the birth, she cried in pain, "Let this child be a devil!"
The baby quickly morphed. Wings. Hooves. A bat's face or, some say, a horse's head. Fingernails became claws; blue eyes turned a piercing yellow. The Jersey Devil was born.
The Leeds family still inhabits the Pine Barrens, along with its legend.
"Something's kept it going," said James McCloy, coauthor of two books about the demon. A vast and demon-inhabited Pine Barrens on the edge of suburban New Jersey gives residents "something out of the ordinary and fun to have."
The Devil Hunters take their investigations seriously. "No screaming, and no practical jokes," Leuter sternly reminded her companions an hour into the trek.
"We don't fool around when we do this," said Velez, a landscaper from Monmouth County.
The hunt started at JD's Pub in Smithville. The bar, named for the demon, is a regular haunt of Dick Leeds, 58, who claims to be a descendent.
"I've seen it twice," said Leeds, still a resident of Leeds Point in Galloway. "It was just starting to turn dark. I was 6 or 7, and we had been out collecting berries all day. Then we heard it. It went 'Whoooooo!' and said, 'I'm the Leeds Devil, and I'm coming to get you.' I don't need to tell you what happened to the berries."
Published accounts describe sightings over the centuries in Haddonfield, Woodbury, Gloucester City, Camden, Pemberton, Trenton and Bristol.
Leuter, who started the Devil Hunters in 1999, suggested that the devil is a creature unidentified by science - like Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster. She said the devil hunters search out of sport as much as curiosity.
"When I first saw Blair Witch, the movie terrified me. We didn't know it was faked, and it was exactly the type of things we're doing," Leuter wrote on her Devil Hunters Web site, home.adelphia.net/~leuter. "We're smarter, though. We bring safer equipment and go to smarter areas. I don't think we'll become the next Blair Witch incident."
It was 5:22 p.m. Velez and Leuter sported walkie-talkie headsets. Velez hacked unsuccessfully at stray branches with a foot-long Kmart machete. Each member held a flashlight.
"Welcome to the Jersey Devil's birthplace," Leuter intoned at the Shourds house's foundation, a tangle of brambles, charred timbers and broken wiring. "I wish we could clear off the steps and sit on them - sit on the devil's front steps."
At 6:25 p.m., they entered the dark of nearby Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. Belinda Connolly, 22, an aspiring actress from Middlesex County, crouched and held her head. "I really don't want to be here," she whispered into her knees.
The remaining hunters continued canvassing for hoofprints and footsteps. Leuter apologized; it wasn't a really "active" night. Then, it was off to the waterfront.
And the carcasses? The work of wild animals, perhaps - fox, coyote, feral cat, said biologist Dennis Gray of Rutgers University's Pinelands station. In season, even hunters.